Our vision of “changing lives and transforming communities” is applicable to more than just the St. Mary community. Sometimes, the lives changed are those of the volunteers themselves. A long-time supporter of ACE (former intern and volunteer), Barret Bender, shares his story of how a seemingly simple interaction would someday become a moment of divine clarity.
I’ve been a Christian as long as I can remember. I claim that I accepted Jesus into my heart in 4th grade at a Christian basketball camp at my local YMCA (the same YMCA I would later obsess over the circumference of my biceps), but truthfully I cannot remember making that decision. And I was always a little uninspired by my story – or really the absence of a story – of not having a real “come to Jesus” moment. Until mine happened.
I was 17 and on my first mission trip in St. Mary, Jamaica. The organization we were working with had a really special relationship with the town’s infirmary, which was kind of like a hospital, except the people never get to go home. In fact, that is actually what delineates the two – a hospital is a place designed to diagnose and treat the sick, injured or dying, while an infirmary is a place where the sick, injured or dying are cared for. And to ensure there was no confusion, there was a sign in front of the building that read “St. Mary Infirmary: Home for the Poor and Destitute”.
We were there that day to take the residents on a field trip to the beach. For some, this would be their first time leaving the infirmary in a long time; for others, this would be their first time getting out of bed in a long time.
The game plan was simple – each of us was to pair up with a resident and help them enjoy the beach however they wished to do so.
When we got to the beach, I was paired with a man named Dino (pronunciation: d EE – n oh), who I quickly learned was deaf. He was younger than most of the residents – probably in his forties – and one of the few who was capable of and interested in getting in the ocean. And so into the ocean we went!
It was one of those gently sloping shores where it feels like you walk miles before the water gets to your waist. Following Dino’s cue, we set out for deeper waters. As we were wading, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was really needed. Unlike many of the other residents, who needed significant help just to sit up in the sand, Dino didn’t really need a partner – and aside from a smile here and there, I couldn’t even communicate with him.
When the water got a little above our waists, Dino started to slow down, and I could see his focus shift from his footing to the vastness of the ocean in front of us. And we just stood there in a kind of mutual appreciation.
Then, before I could register what was happening, Dino threw his arm around my shoulders and kicked his legs up, as if he had stepped on something scary and never wanted to touch the ocean floor again. Instinctively, with one of his arms still around my shoulders, I extended my arms below his torso to help keep him afloat. And to my surprise, his face gave away that that was exactly what he was going for – he wanted me to hold him so that he could just float. And so there I was, standing in the Caribbean Sea, holding a 40-something year old Jamaican man.
I don’t know how much time passed, but the feeling that I wasn’t needed was quickly replaced by a deeper and stronger feeling that not only was I needed here this day, but that I was needed for all my days. I felt like I was experiencing in a new way, maybe even for the first time, what it was like to be the hands and feet of Christ, and that there was a calling on my life to do this kind of work – to help people like Dino stay afloat.
When I got home from the trip, I couldn’t wait to tell people about my experience with Dino. For the first time in my life, I felt like there was a story related to my faith that was worth sharing. And so I did. I told my family. I told my friends. I told my youth group. I even told an atheist professor of mine, who was either so moved or so confused that he actually came to Jamaica with me the next summer to experience what I described for himself (which is a story for another time).
As time went on, though, my experience with Dino faded a bit in my memory. When I would think of it, I’d have mixed emotions. I’d think fondly of my time in Jamaica, but then I’d wonder if I was living out the calling on my life that I discovered through my experience with Dino. I’d struggle to think of any recent examples where I was being the hands and feet of Christ, and I was having a hard time reconciling what that was supposed to look like throughout different seasons of life.
And then one morning, almost nine years after that first trip to Jamaica, I was drinking coffee at my kitchen table before work when out of nowhere a thought crossed my mind that I don’t think was my own (that’s one of the ways Christians believe God speaks). And the thought was this: that I had gotten the story of Dino all wrong. I was not the hands and feet of Christ to Dino that day – I was Dino. I was and still am poor and destitute, with no way of swimming, of even holding my head above water, without Jesus.
And right there at my kitchen table, over 1,500 miles from the shores of Jamaica, I realized I’d just had a real “come to Jesus” moment.